Monday, 19 August 2013

Marx and Dialectics

If you're not a lefty geek you probably don't know a literature has grown up around scattered remarks by Marx on the 'D' word - dialectics. There, I said it. Listen carefully and you might hear half the audience clicking their mouse button to navigate away. And who can blame them? Dialectics have a terrible reputation, not least because they are abused to bolster a bit of dirge with some clever-sounding terminology, provide a posse of get out clauses should otherwise cast-iron prophecies not come to pass, or to position oneself as an adroit thinker and masterful interpreter of the grey beards without saying a great deal. I think it was Heidegger who observed that legibility would mean the death of philosophy, and that applies equally to those who set themselves up as gatekeepers to the Marxist screed. And as for academic commentaries, if anything they are much worse.

When I was first learning about Marx and Marxism dialectics appeared to me as reified, impenetrable things, a matter far from helped by Lenin's injunction (in private notes) that you needed to read and understand Hegel's Science of Logic if you were to ever get a handle on Capital. But I was determined to get my head round them because its proponents held out the promise of their being master keys that could unlock the secrets of social phenomena (and nature, if you followed crude and uncritical celebrations of Engels' Dialectics of Nature). Undaunted, I vowed to make use of a protracted period of unemployment by burrowing into Marx and the mountain of commentary grown up around him. As you would expect most of the stuff I read at that time was opaque. I gave up on CLR James's Notes on Dialectics - a reading that took Lenin's dictum seriously and ploughed straight into Hegel. I had a tough time with Maurice Cornforth's Materialism and the Dialectical Method and the four-volume Issues in Marxist Philosophy, but I got a handle on the core precepts of the dialectical method eventually. After much obfuscation and outright bullshit, it basically boils down to the observation that social relations are interconnected, conflict with one another, and are forever in a process of change.

What's brought this trip down memory lane on? I've recently been toying with the idea of revisiting Capital and actually finish it this time round. Third time lucky, perhaps. The passage below stood out as some of the most beguiling Marx ever wrote, not least because he avoided writing a treatise on his dialectics. So what is his basic position? 
For Hegel, the process of thinking ... is the creator of the real world, and the real world is only the external appearance of 'the idea'. With me the reverse is true: the ideal is nothing but the material world reflected in the mind of man, and translated into forms of thought ... The mystification the dialectic suffers in Hegel's hands by no means prevents him from being the first to present its general forms of motion in a comprehensive and conscious manner. With him it is standing on its head, It must be inverted, in order to discover the rational kernel within the mystical shell. In its mystified form, the dialectic became the fashion in Germany, because it seemed to transfigure and glorify what exists. In its rational form it is a scandal and an abomination to the bourgeoisie and its doctrinaire spokesmen, because it includes in its positive understanding of what exists a simultaneous recognition of its negation, its inevitable destruction: because it regards every historically developed form as being in a fluid state, in motion and therefore it grasps its transient aspect as well; because it does not let itself be impressed by anything, being in its essence critical and revolutionary. (1968, pp102-3)
A quick note on terminology. 'The dialectic' or 'dialectics' implies something otherworldly, or a mystifying plurality that denotes nothing but itself. In Marx's hands it/they are neither of these. It is simply a name denoting the simultaneity of interconnectedness, conflict and change.

What does turning Hegel the right way up entail, and what's so frightful about it? As Marx notes, for Hegel the world as it was and will be is the reflection of 'the idea', or reason, or the 'absolute' unfolding and coming into being through the history of our species. Each epoch in history, from antiquity to the moment Hegel was writing constituted a moment in the progress of the idea becoming conscious of itself. But, and this point is often overlooked, this was not a linear process. History unconsciously, semi-consciously, and then fully consciously gropes toward reason through dialectical processes. History - with a capital H - approaches reason through innumerable contradictions that are resolved, but also seed subsequent History with the elements of new conflicts. Over time, the scope of these contradictions narrow to the point where the End of History is reached and human history, as we understand it, stops and we live in a new age governed by reason. As far as Hegel was concerned, as he grew more crotchety and conservative with age he came to identify the Prussian state with the idea - a misrecognition only surpassed by Francis Fukuyama's pronouncement that the End of History had come with the fall of the Berlin Wall. But nonetheless, for Marx Hegel's great achievement was that he had, in the abstract through his dialectics captured the 'shape' and the 'movement' of social processes in a particular kind of society and a certain historical conjuncture. Behind the foreboding language of the passage of quantity into quality, interpenetration of opposites and the negation of the negation lay a dynamic appreciation of how social relations are constituted, develop and dissipate.

Whereas in Hegel it was the idea that drove dialectics, putting him the right way up demonstrates it was actually dialectics that drove the development - or allowed for the very possibility - of the idea. In Hegel's hands, dialectical philosophy justified the status quo with its appeal to revealed reason. But in Marx's hands it became a weapon for the deepest, most thoroughgoing understanding and critique of human societies. For Marx, who had no time for deities or phantoms (except as handy metaphors), all of human history and prehistory was a material process of dialectical interaction with the natural world. All of our achievements and continued viability as a species rests on the productive relationship with have with the world around us. With the concomitant development of agriculture and civilisation, history (with a small h) effectively began when early societies were consistently able to produce a surplus over and above the needs of those communities. Struggles over the disposal of that surplus sedimented into different classes. Who controlled a society's material resources have, since about 5,000 years ago, been a question of class. Since then different kinds of class societies have come and gone, the playing out of class antagonisms and contradictions largely conditioning the shape of the kind of society that came after. For instance, as the feudal relationships between lord and serf decayed in mediaeval England the contradictions arising from the contradictions between them, the nascent merchant classes in the towns, and large numbers of landless labourers saw traditional relationships in the countryside displaced by a mercantile one whereby labour power was given in exchange for a wage, and produce was grown and sold primarily for profit. As the profit motive and the drive to accumulate in competition against others spread and subsumed all productive activity, so the material impulse to innovate - which seldom existed outside of warfare - entered into economics and gave us capitalism, the first truly dynamic social system.

Therefore all of human history for Marx is merely a succession of material struggles, and ideas - such as those of Hegels - are more or less abstract representations of contending clashes of interests. Hence the term materialist dialectics or (if you must) dialectical materialism. Their abominable quality, as Marx noted, lies in the simple observation that nothing is eternal. The rule of the most benign forms of capital rests on the exploitation of one class by another, and sooner or later the class contradictions contained within capitalist social formations shall resolve themselves. They can do so positively in the emergence of a new society in which the economic exploitation of one human being by another is consigned to history, or negatively in some other, so far unanticipated system of class rule with its own set of dynamics, contradictions and possibilities.

The point is that dialectics are utterly straightforward to the point of banality, and indeed would be if they did not have serious political implications for whatever happens to be the ruling state of affairs.

NB This old post on the place of abstraction in Marx's dialectical method might prove interesting to some.


Left Outside said...

Nicely explained. Although I think "dialectic" will stay on my list with "fiat currency" as a sign someone is talking through their arse.

phuzz said...

That's one of the best explanations I've seen of what dialectics.
I still don't feel like I really follow though, as the above commentator notes, use of the word is often a good indicator that someone is talking bollocks.

Anonymous said...

I don't think bullshit and dialectics are synonymous at all, I think all academics dealing in meta theories are to some extent dealing in bullshitting.

This classic Mel Brooks scene sums it up nicely:

Phil said...

When I read a left guru writing on, say, political economy (i.e. regurgitating articles from the F/T), it does tickle to see dialectics inappropriately pop up for no reason whatsoever except to give what would otherwise be a straight piece of economic commentary a Marxist sheen.

If you invoke dialectics for bullshitty ends, it shows you don't understand what they're about at all.

Howard Fuller said...

I read Healy's notes on dialectics published by the long dead WRP. I didn't understand it then and now know I wasn't actually supposed to anyway.

At least I think that was the point of their little publication.

Phil said...

Healy's writings on dialectics were so much sophistry. For all his bandying about of terminology, for all his "philosophical studies" he did not make one single contribution to the advancement of Marxist, never mind social scientific knowledge.

Anonymous said...

There are worse people on the left though, think of the left supporters of imperialism. Those that regard John Pilger as the enemy. You know, total twats like that.

"one single contribution to the advancement of Marxist, never mind social scientific knowledge"

Well maybe, if looked at in strcit theoretical terms, but every real step of the real labour movement is worth a thousand meta theories from "bullshitters". No offence intended!

Kapitano said...

I spent over 10 years in the SWP(UK), and discussed 'Marx's Method' and 'Dialectics' with many comrades - none of who seemed able to say what the method was, although they had great faith in it.

I then spent a year reading everything available on the subject, and realised: Dialectics is deep and true - but the true bits aren't deep, and the deep bits aren't true.

When true, it's a way of dressing up banalities in grand pseudo-paradoxical terms.

Examples: destroying capitalism doesn't recreate feudalism, trade unions are progressive in some ways and conservative in others, a society with only one class is classless etc.

As for the rest, it's a ragbag of often incompatible tropes, from which you can select whichever ones help you to 'prove' whatever you want.

Examples: As above so below, all things become their opposites, all things are their opposites, all change is sudden, all change is gradual etc.

Phil said...

It was the same in the SP. Though I don't recall there ever being a lead off on dialectics at branch, the annual Socialism always had well attended sessions devoted to them. The problem was they were absolutely useless in terms of, for want of a phrase, thinking about dialectical thinking.

David Pavett said...

Interesting discussion of dialectics. Was this published somewhere?

There is a long tradition to the view that dialectics is utterly straightforward. Engels' compared thinking dialectically with the discovery of Moliere's Monsieur Jourdain that he had been speaking prose all his life without even knowing it.

If only it were that simple. If we were to remain at the level of the embryonic dialectics of the ancient philosophers like Heraclitus who were keen to point out that "you can never step into the same river twice" and such like then this view would work. The thing is though that, since these ancient speculations human thought has taken a prodigious journey into the way the world works and the way we think about it.

The first peak of this process was Kant's discovering that enlightenment thought (not his expression) was bound to end up in contradictions that it could not resolve: we believe both that everything has a cause and that we have free will. For him this was a barrier to human thought the transcendence of which required faith.

Hegel transformed Kant's view by seeing the contradictions as a stimulus rather than a barrier. Kant thought we were stuck with contradictions. Hegel believed we could resolve them and that this was a way of driving knowledge forward.

Marx accepted Hegel's positive view of contradiction while criticising his idealist standpoint. For Marx idealism was not nonsense but it saw the world as in a "camera obscura" i.e. inverted. That inverted view of the world captured many of its relationships but at the same time contaminated them with a false view of their nature. Inverting this inversion is no simple process of switching the terms God and man or matter and ideas. Every concept needed to be re-examined to work out its materialist basis and its proper relation with other concepts. This is a vast and never-ending project.

If it were possible to reduce all this effort to saying that dialectics is "simply a name denoting the simultaneity of interconnectedness, conflict and change". Then we could all move on to something more interesting The locus classicus for this approach is Stalin's booklet Dialectical and Historical Materialism. Decades of Marxist thought have been blighted by this simplicism.

The difficulties in Hegel lie not in the idea that quantitative changes (adding grains of sand to a pile) can lead to qualitative changes (sand dunes have different laws of movement to a small pile of sand). Nearly everyone can understand that with appropriate examples. The same goes for the other concepts you mention.

The real difficulty is to appreciate the relations between concepts and categories such thoughts involve. It is clear that at a given pressure water will boil at a specific temperature and that the increasd energy leads to a qualitative change from a liquid to a gas. It is less easy to understand that quantity and quality categorical connections between the two. Hegel developed the concept of measure to help understand this,

On such a basis one can follow Hegel into a series of category investigations in which he dismantles the normal understanding of the concepts of cause and effect, chance and necessity, freedom and necessity, general and particular, form and content and many more besides. Marx took all of these issues up in his work and added many more issues of his own.

Marx continued these investigations thus his view that at a certain stage of development a general relationship could take on the form of a particular thing was the basis for his theory of money, and subsequently of capital (and his theory of commodity fetishism). Marx's notes for Capital (the Grundrisse) are filled with considerations of this sort.

If you think that dialectics is banal then you may well not appreciate the conceptual richness of Capital. A good idea of its subtlety can be gained, in my view, from reading Evald Ilyenkov's book "The dialectics of the abstract and the concrete in Marx's Capital".

Phil said...

I have a dialectical view of, erm, dialectics.

They are incredibly complex and difficult. Five minutes with The Science of Logic will tell you that. But they're also simple and intuitive too - they are immediately graspable if described in the right way.

This piece (which wasn't written for anywhere else) is purposely introductory. It's a way in for readers who've tried looking at dialectics but have found the language off-putting or the logical gymnastics of the likes of Healy alienating. Still, glad you liked it!